London, January 2014
My name is Molly Cloud, and I’m going to rob a museum.
On the Thames, ready to sail, a stout ship, colours long dissipated beneath the salt of many seas. The tide moved the wood of it up and down, right and left, a gentle sway, and no weather. Halfway up the masts, the crew listened for orders, all the way out on the ropes, palms burned already from the rough hemp. A listless sea, out there, down the river, waiting. Destination unknown.
Robert Lindsey was a sprawl of a man. He filled space wherever he was, with his tall face, his tall body, too long for normal beds or chairs. Today he was staring at the wall, through his man servant, nothing in his mind but his secret dreams, the ones that never reached his eyes. The swell of the river, harbinger of the far-off tide, only magnified his power. He pushed past the silent servant, ripped open the door of his cabin, onto the quarterdeck. ‘Let’s sail.’ He waved his arms about him as he shouted. ‘And let’s be quick about it.’
The crew jumped, sails rumpled and ruffled, dropped and squatted into the breeze. Ropes fell into the water from the quay, and the ship loosed itself from its moorings into the centre of the river. They were heading east, out into the open, bound for somewhere south of this damp island. Lindsey hated the swamp that was England, hated it almost as much as he hated the foreign countries he had to visit. He was at his best when the horizon was nothing but water all around, when all he could see was the ocean. He slammed the door closed, threw himself onto his divan, reached out for the decanter of port and poured himself his first glass of the day. He stared at his servant again.
‘You know we have an additional passenger, don’t you?’ He lifted the glass of port to his lips, felt the heat slide down into his belly. ‘His name is Finn.’
‘Yes.’ And I’ve seen him already, and he’s not a man, you blind fool.
‘Be careful with him. There’s more to him than meets the eye.’
The servant inclined his head, managed to suppress a smile. Really?
‘I’m betting on him having a load of jewels with him.’
‘What makes you think that, sir?’
‘I can feel it in my bones.’ Lindsey drained his glass. ‘And Job, I want you to go through all his boxes. I didn’t save your red skin for nothing.’
‘Very well. What am I looking for?’ You stole me from my people.
‘Gold. Pearls. Moonstones. Value. Something to make this trip even more fruitful for me.’ He refilled his glass. ‘What are you waiting for? Go. Now.’
Job didn’t move.
‘You think I should look for the loot myself, don’t you?’
‘You’re already thinking I won’t look hard enough.’
‘You’re much too clever to be a slave. You know me too well.’
‘Only as a slave knows his owner.’
‘You were cheap.’
‘As you remind me often.’
‘Don’t come back until you’ve found what I want.’ The Earl of Lindsey waved his hand, dismissed his slave. ‘I’m serious.’
Job, already merging into the darkness, stopped and swivelled on his heel. ‘I am quite aware of that, as always.’
Lindsey waved again. ‘Enough.’
Job pushed his way through the gasping door of the quarterdeck, his hands calm on the greasy wood, out onto the soaking deck, rain and fog now sluicing along the grain, and the sea swaying in time with the sails and the warren of masts. He shrugged, wiped his face against the weather, strode across the straight-lined decking, lifted the nearest hatch and jumped down into it, ignoring the ladder, bracing himself as he landed, silent-soled, on the grey treads of their passenger’s quarters. There, the gloom was held at bay by an orchestra of candles, flames floating a distance away from their wicks, or at least that was how they seemed to him.
‘I know you’re there, whatever your name is.’ The voice was a soft, accented whisper. ‘Has he sent you to find what treasures I have?’
‘Yes,’ Job said, still in darkness. ‘But I know I won’t find anything.’
‘Why?’ The voice came closer to his hiding place.
‘Because I’ve guessed your secret.’
‘Come out of the dark and tell me what you think my secret is.’
Job stepped into the guttering light and looked at the stranger.
The quickening wind pushed into the silence, levered the boat harder into the oncoming swell, the room rolling and swaying, the table shuddering with the contradictory motions, and yet neither of them sought anything to hold on to.
‘Come on, tell me.’ The stranger’s cheekbones were flushed, as in a fever, and sharp by the flickering light of the candles.
‘You’re not a man,’ Job said. ‘How he didn’t see it, I don’t know.’
‘Are you going to tell him?’ She didn’t seem surprised or afraid.
Job shook his head. ‘It’s nothing to do with me.’
‘You’re not going to coerce me or blackmail me, or take advantage of me to keep quiet?’
‘Good,’ she said. ‘Because if you did, I’d kill you.’
‘I don’t doubt it.’
‘And you’re not afraid now?’ Her eyes were a bright, pale blue, cutting through the gloom.
‘I see no reason to be.’
She laughed, lowered herself into one of the rickety skeleton chairs, pushed her legs under the table and leaned back. ‘Come, sit.’
Job sat down opposite her, took in her baggy clothes, ragged hat set upon short black hair. ‘He’ll notice before long. When you don’t grow a beard.’
‘I’m going to be ill for the whole voyage. They’ll all think I’m dying, and you’ll be the only one brave enough to tend to me.’
‘You think that will work?’
She lay her long-fingered hands on the table. ‘I don’t see why not. Sailors are superstitious.’
‘He’s not a sailor. He only does this for the money.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘He calls me Job.’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Interesting. I’d have expected you to be black not red with that name.’
‘It’s not my real name.’
‘I’d gathered that. You’re not very good at hiding things. Not from me, anyway.’ She wiped something from her face, left a smudge of dirt on her cheek instead. ‘Are you going to tell me your real name?’
‘Not now.’ He leaned forward. ‘And you, what’s your real name?’
‘It’s not that far away from what Lindsey thinks I’m called. I’m Fien.’ The way she pronounced it made him think of light breezes in the heat, of whispered sounds across savannahs, of summer, of light and shade and dew. ‘I’m from the Low Countries.’
‘And what are you doing here? Why dress up as a man? When he finds out what you are, he’ll throw you overboard.’ Job wiped his face. He was sweating although it wasn’t warm.
‘Do we trust each other yet?’ She seemed impervious to fear.
‘I think so.’
‘Shake on it?’ She reached her right hand out across the table.
They shook hands, the storm not far away now, held each other’s gaze for one second too long, until, by mutual consent, it seemed, they looked down at the table again.
‘It’s too dangerous to tell you what I’m doing. That way you have nothing to give away.’ She wiped her nose. ‘The best thing for you to do is to look through all those chests and tell him you found nothing.’
‘What if I do find something?’
‘What are you?’
‘A slave like you,’ she said.
‘Don’t make fun of me.’
‘I’m not. I am a slave, to revenge and justice.’
‘So you do still have a way to escape if you really want to. You have a choice.’
‘And you don’t?’
‘His power reaches further than I can run or swim.’
‘Even when you’re away from England?’
‘What if I buy you and set you free?’
‘He wouldn’t allow it.’
‘You’re too valuable to him, you mean?’
‘I suppose so.’
Fien ran her hands, palms down, across the table smooth with age and touch and salt, tracing the lines in the wood with sharp nails. ‘Why do you mean so much to him?’
‘I’m a shadow,’ Job said. ‘No-one sees me.’
‘So you spy for him.’ She looked at him, the muscles in his arms, the tattoos on his hands. ‘And worse.’
‘I try to mitigate his malice.’
‘And he hasn’t noticed yet?’
Job raised his eyebrows. ‘There have been some men he wanted dead whom I wanted dead, too.’
‘So you killed them.’
One sharp, curt nod.
‘So why won’t you do what he tells you to this time?’
‘You intrigue me. And, as you say, you have none of what he wants.’
‘Won’t he get suspicious if you go back and tell him you found nothing?’
Job shrugged. ‘He would never do his own dirty work. And he’ll find another way to profit.’
‘And you, why won’t you try to flee? You can’t be afraid of him.’
He looked at her again, and again for longer than he should have. ‘I suppose I feel I can do more good pretending to serve him and being merciful when I can get away with it rather than fighting him.’
‘Come with me,’ Fien said. ‘When we get to the end of this journey, come with me, and be my friend, not my slave nor my assassin.’
Those weeks at sea weighed heavily on Job, and sleep was rare. When he was not running the errands his master gave him, when he was not pretending to rummage still amongst Fien’s empty boxes, he could be found standing in the stern of the vessel, at the dead of night, nose in the air, trying for the scent of the land he had been stolen from, the scent of which her name had reminded him. And when those nights were without cloud, he sat in the bow, a rough blanket over his shivering legs, his eyes on the waves coming towards them, when his real name would carry from the land of his birth across the oceans and cut into his face. It was at these moments he wished he could grab one of the galley knives and push it into Lindsey’s throat as he slept, and free himself.
He heard, like all the others, Fien’s heavy footsteps in her cabin, kept his secret and hers wrapped closely inside him, reported to Lindsey each day that the passenger’s illness seemed no better, that slight men do not tread heavily when they are well, that he thought death could not be far. He found that lying for her came even more easily to him than any lying he had done before, and that he rejoiced in telling untruths for her. And the excitement of it almost pushed away the homesickness he felt whenever he was at sea, made him even more determined to find his way, once again, to freedom, something he hadn’t known for more than ten years.
Fien, for her part, never left her cabin, not even to fulfil her most basic needs. She left her meagre waste and some blood in a covered leather bucket in a hidden corner of the room, and waited until after dark to empty it out of the one narrow, stained window she had. When Job offered to do it for her she refused. And during the day she continued to wear her disguise, and sweated into the rough sheets that covered her up to her neck.
One night, a fierce storm blew up, shook the ship to its keel, rattled across the decks so violently the men had to tie themselves to the realings not to be swept away. Job, under the howling sky, pulled himself into Fien’s cabin, and let himself gingerly down the ladder as everything around him danced in maddening circles. She was sitting at the table, one hand holding onto the candle, the other clasping a book.
‘You can read in weather like this?’ Job said.
‘I’m not a little girl afraid of thunder and lightning.’
‘Aren’t you afraid of sinking?’
She laughed. ‘If we’re going to sink we’re going to sink and there’s nothing I can do about it. And nor can you.’
Job sat down next to her, looked at the book she was reading. ‘You’re learning Persian?’
‘Reminding myself of Persian,’ she said. ‘It’s not an easy language to learn.’
‘It took me an age.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘Why would you learn Persian?’
‘I might ask you the same.’
‘My father taught me. He travelled a lot.’
‘Did you travel with him?’
‘Sometimes.’ She closed the book and let it drop onto the swaying table. ‘And you?’
‘Curiosity. The need to drag me away from feeling sorry for myself for being his slave. And because the first trip he took me on was to Persia.’
‘Does he know you speak it?’
Job shook his head. ‘No. And I don’t want him to. It means I can find out things he can’t.’
‘And impress him with them? And be even more precious to him?’
‘You’re too perceptive.’
‘Men are very predictable.’ She grabbed at the book as the ship lurched, and caught it with one hand just as it tumbled off the table’s edge.
‘And women aren’t?’
‘We’re not allowed to be predictable or unpredictable. We’re just expected to be in our place.’ She slammed the book back onto the table. ‘That’s not the way it should be.’
‘In my tribe, most of the women came hunting with us.’
Fien smiled. ‘You must miss that.’
‘I try not to.’
‘Then you can understand how I feel.’
‘That’s why you’re doing all this.’ She tried to reach across the table and take his hand, but he pulled it away.
‘Slowly,’ he said.
‘What are you afraid of?’
‘I’m sorry.’ She pulled her hand back, let it drop into her lap. ‘I suppose it doesn’t help that I’m white.’
It was Job’s turn to laugh. ‘That’s what he would like to think. He keeps telling me that species shouldn’t interbreed, and that includes people of different colours.’
‘That’s what most people think.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s just the accepted way of thinking. It will change, some time. Some time soon, I hope.’ She looked at him through the smoke of the guttering candle. ‘Because I want to be free, too. I don’t want to be a woman, I want to be a person.’
Job rubbed his hands together, embarrassed at how forthright she was. ‘It’s very difficult. Women are … very difficult. Here, in this white world.’
The wind began to subside, the ship no longer feeling out of control.
‘The storm’s going,’ she said. ‘You’d better get back to your master.’
‘He’s probably out of his mind on drink by now.’
‘That’s when he’s most likely to look for you.’
Job stood up. ‘You’re right, of course.’
She was next to him now, just about the same height as him. She put her arms around him before he could even react. ‘Thank you.’
He tried to pull back against his instincts, and managed only to awkwardly return a half-hug. ‘I’ve done nothing.’
‘More than you know. … See you tomorrow.’
Job turned and jumped up the ladder, his heart lighter than he could remember it ever being.
The days grew longer and warmer, and then hot. In his cabin upstairs, suffocating in his luxury, Lindsey fidgeted and sprawled, and fretted about the promises he had made to the king, and to Buckingham.